Film Review – Kill Your Darlings
Kill Your Darlings
John Krokidas’s new film, Kill Your Darlings, uses the murder of professor-turned-janitor David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) to show how the Beat poets first came together. (This film is based on a “true story.” Which is all good and fine, but the spin on some of the events differs greatly from some of the official accounts, so I am going to treat it as though it were purely fiction.) The film centers on a young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), who is looking to escape his mentally ill mother and her constant demands by attending Columbia University and living on campus. His father (David Cross) is a poet, and Allen’s love for the written word has him well on the way to becoming a writer himself. Soon after starting classes, Ginsberg meets the mesmerizing Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who introduces him to William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and thus a movement is born.
But there is a secret side to Carr: his relationship with the much older David Kammerer, who has been following Carr around since Lucien was fourteen. Kammerer writes his papers for him, and it seems they have some sort of private relationship. There is some ambiguity as to whether Kammerer is a sexual predator (following a teenager around from town to town is stalking) or if Carr is manipulating the situation to for his own reasons. Ginsberg is also deeply attracted to Carr, and when Kammerer is murdered, he needs to decide what interpretation of the events he will choose to embrace. There is so much potential in this movie to talk about issues of masculinity, sexuality, art, invention, rage, fear, and mental illness. And it does touch on all of those ideas, but only in the most cursory way.
The film is stylish and visually inventive, which just helps to distract from the fact that there isn’t much going on. It’s entertaining enough, though, and I did not get bored. Mostly because Daniel Radcliffe is a good actor who can give his character more depth than is apparent in the script. Radcliffe is the reason to see this movie, and he gives Ginsberg an appealing yearning for experience that none of the other characters can match. Carr is too manipulative, Burroughs too mechanical, and Kerouac too blah. Within the internal logic of the movie I questioned why they would ever be friends, let alone start an important art movement. At no point did Ginsberg look at them and go “You guys are a bunch of assholes; why am I here?” I had that thought. Several times.
And the women. There are women in this movie, but they mostly serve as obstacles for the male characters. Allen’s mother’s needs are so great he feels he must sacrifice himself to support her emotionally. (Although she manages to get herself together by the end of the film to dispense some important life lessons.) Kerouac’s girlfriend Edie is always getting in his way with her constant demand he sit down and eat dinner. But it’s Lucien’s mother (Kyra Sedgwick) who is the most problematic for me. She insists that Kammerer ruined her son by pressing his attentions on him—the subtext being that Lou is not naturally gay, but that Kammerer made him that way. (The film never shows Carr and Kammerer having sex, but it is pretty heavily implied.)
Ignoring the fact that most of us no longer believe being gay means someone is “ruined,” it is perfectly natural for a mother to be freaked out by an adult following her teenaged child around trying to initiate a sexual relationship. To make her seem unreasonable for doing so is kind of weird. And it is in the portrayal of the relationship between Carr and Kammerer where this film really fails for me. Kammerer is portrayed as a spurned lover and Carr as the controlling person in the relationship. At the time of Kammerer’s death, Carr was only nineteen years old. And he had been pursued by the other man for five years. Yes, there is room for ambiguity in this relationship; I have met sexually precocious teenagers who played mind games with older partners. But the film downplays Kammerer’s creepiness to highlight Carr’s complicity. Murder is not good, but neither is stalking a teenager.
The film ends with text on the screen explaining what happened to the real-life participants after this story stopped. Considering the interpretive nature of this film, I disliked the attempt to give it more veracity by using such a manipulative technique. I have nothing against the changing of real events to explore ideas—that’s kind of what art is. But I do dislike the pretense that this film doesn’t do that. It strays quite far from historical accounts, and I’m not sure it’s a version I buy.